The Green Bay Packers could have drafted edge defenders Jermaine Johnson or George Karlaftis. They could have taken wide receivers George Pickens, Skyy Moore, or Christian Watson. But Green Bay’s perception of positional value is different from the general view. That explains the selections of linebacker Quay Walker and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt in the first round of the NFL draft.
During the pre-draft process, I mentioned analysis of positional value based on PFF’s metric called Wins Above Replacement. It reflects the impact a player has on the final score of a game over a replacement-level player. I also wrote that market value indicated positions where players got more money on veteran contracts, therefore being more valuable for draft purposes considering the rookie-scale system. But that’s not what matters for Brian Gutekunst. It’s also why they frequently go in an unexpected direction.
Physical traits were once again a focal point of the scouting process. As was the case for almost all of Gutekunst’s picks, both first-round selections in 2022 have high Relative Athletic Scores, a metric that considers all athletic profiles of a player. Walker has a 9.63 RAS (out of 10), and Wyatt scored 9.60.
Scheme fit is the second justification for Green Bay’s picks. For years, the Packers had a clear hole at inside linebacker and refused to use significant draft capital — or literal capital — to mitigate it. They used mid-round picks for players like Blake Martinez, traded low for Antonio Morrison, and signed modest deals with Christian Kirksey and De’Vondre Campbell in the last two years. The latter just agreed to a $2 million deal late in the previous offseason.
Gutekunst decided that the system run by defensive coordinator Joe Barry needed off-ball linebackers to succeed, so he re-signed Campbell to a five-year, $50 million deal and spent the 22nd-overall pick on Walker. It’s a change in approach compared to what the Packers did when Dom Capers or Mike Pettine were their defensive coordinators.
The investment in the defensive front is a scheme evaluation as well. Barry likes to use light boxes. Therefore, it’s imperative to have strong interior defensive linemen to eat multiple blocks and stop the run because the second level of the defense is weakened to prioritize stopping the pass.
The Packers even broke recent trends to get those athletic players who fit Barry’s scheme. In the case of Quay Walker, he is the first off-ball linebacker drafted by Green Bay in the first round since they selected A.J. Hawk in 2006, the second year of Ted Thompson as general manager. As for Wyatt, he is 24 years old, and the Packers rarely use early picks to get players older than 22. To put it into perspective, Wyatt is just two years younger than Kenny Clark, who has been in the NFL for six years.
The good news for the Packers is that both players should enter the rotation to contribute immediately. As the second linebacker last season, Krys Barnes played 48.8% of the snaps, even if the Packers were one of the teams that used the most dime packages. Oren Burks played 19% of the snaps. Starter De’Vondre Campbell was on the field in 91% of the defensive plays. Meanwhile, defensive end Dean Lowry played 62% of the snaps. Tyler Lancaster (29%) and T.J. Slaton (23%) also played significant snaps from the defensive tackle or nose tackle positions.
The Rodgers and LaFleur factors
There is another factor that dictates how the Packers operate in the draft, and it has been especially notable since they hired Matt LaFleur as head coach. The front office thinks they should invest ample resources to acquire defensive players, where pure talent is the main reason for success.
Meanwhile, the offense could function at a high level with lesser talent because of LaFleur’s system, and Aaron Rodgers is good enough to elevate the rest of the unit. It might not work sometimes, like when the Packers scored only 10 points against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, but that looks to be the philosophical approach.
Since Gutekunst became the general manager in 2018, the only first-round draft pick he used to acquire an offensive player has been Jordan Love, who had one start in two seasons. The defense got high draft capital investments year after year, with Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, Eric Stokes, and now Walker and Wyatt.
Even in free agency, the defense generally receives more attention. In 2019, the Packers made four big-time signings, and three of them were defensive players – Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos. However, Billy Turner was the only offensive player. Even though Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling left Green Bay this year, the only offensive reinforcement was Sammy Watkins for a contract near the veteran minimum.
The Green Bay Packers have had a unique roster-building approach for better or worse. It has worked over the last few years, but it’s hard to argue that the team is worse in 2022 than in 2020 and 2021.